“Work in Progress” Colchester Federated Church, October 4, 2020, (Philippians 3:4b-14) World Communion Sunday

Today is World Communion Sunday.  We remember that in the United Church of Christ we have two Sacraments—Baptism and Communion.  And in the American Baptist Churches there are two Ordinances—Believer’s Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  This will be on the quiz later.  In the early Church in general, Communion wasn’t always just the little piece of bread and small cup of wine and an ordained person presiding over the sacrament for the faithful.  It was often called the Agape Feast or Love Feast and was a full communal meal shared among the earliest Christians.  When we take Communion together today, it’s continuing one of the oldest and most significant acts of our faith. 

Though Paul discovered something terrible was happening in the Corinthian Church concerning our sacred meal.  (Even though we’re exploring Paul’s letters and we’re in Philippians right now, it’s worth considering what happened in Corinthians because it’s World Communion Sunday and it’s Paul at his best.)  Anyway, the wealthy in the Christian community in Corinth would arrive first at a house church (or they would be the hosts of a house church.)  They’d eat their own food and get drunk before other people could even come to the table.  Some celebration of the Agape Feast!  You don’t wait for everyone to arrive before you eat, you bring your own food that you don’t share with anybody else, and you drink all the wine and get drunk before your fellow Christians arrive. 

Paul was understandably mad about this and wrote, “Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on God’s churches and humiliate those who have nothing? What can I say to you? Will I praise you? No, I don’t praise you in this.”[1]  What the rich were doing was carrying over the Roman practice of feasting.  In that cultural practice, the rich and powerful would receive the best seats at banquets and have the best food and drinks near them, while the poorest and least influential sat in courtyards off the main banquet room and consumed less quality meals.[2] 

In some ways, what these early Christians were doing was even worse than Roman practices because they were apparently eating and drinking everything before others could come to the table.  At least the Romans fed the least influential—sure out in the courtyard and with less fancy food.  But those who came later to the house churches in Corinth (probably because they were day laborers and doing hard work all day) had nothing to eat because of their fellow Christians and were humiliated.  This was happening when the community was supposed to be united in the Lord’s Supper.  It was a terrible moment in the Church, and that’s why Paul got so upset about this.

Paul held himself to high standards when it came to how he practiced his faith.  In Philippians Chapter 3 Paul relates, “I was circumcised on the eighth day.  I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.  I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.  With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.  With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.”[3]  Now this may seem like Paul is bragging a bit about his resume and how awesome he happens to be.  But really, he’s speaking about the person that he was, including being honest about when he harassed followers of Jesus before he became one himself.  He’s speaking about the person he remains in some ways, but admits that he has written off all these things for the sake of Christ.  Meaning, that Paul recognizes that he’s a work in progress just like the rest of us.  Being part of a Christian community ends up making people more equal.  As Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[4]

We can be honest with ourselves and remember that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  We’re works in progress.  And we can remember that Paul got so upset about Communion practices in the Corinthian Church because he was standing up for those on the margins.  Why?  Because Paul was following in the footsteps of Jesus.  What may make us uncomfortable is that Paul took sides—he sided with the poor over the rich.  The poor were being embarrassed through no fault of their own because the rich couldn’t fully see them as created in the image and likeness of God and treat them as such. 

Liberation Theologians would say that this points to God having a preferential option for the poor.  That God over and again in the stories of our faith prioritizes the well-being of those who are the most vulnerable and powerless in society.  Often in the Old Testament the prophets called for those in power to care for the widows and the orphans because they were the most vulnerable in their highly patriarchal society without a male head of household to help them make their way in the world. 

All of this matters in how we make our way in the world.  Every time we take Communion here at CFC, we begin that worship service with a Prayer of Confession.  We do that to acknowledge that you and I don’t always get it right.  We mess up.  We’re not always our best selves.  And we can ask forgiveness from God and yes, sometimes even from one another.  What better time to do this than before we come to Christ’s Table?  We are works in progress and it takes humility to admit that we’re after progress not perfection.

In the end, Holy Communion is the most sacramental form of eating in the Christian Church.  We happen to eat a lot in the Christian Church, but Communion is the most important meal we have.  Our simple meal of bread and juice sends the message that less is more in a culture where we’re told that we should “go big or go home.”  We can rejoice in the simplicity and splendor of this holy meal that we eat and drink together.[5]  And these days we can do this whether we are taking Communion in person here in our sanctuary, at home during the live stream of our service, or at home at a later time.  Our faith unites us across these physical locations

Because Communion is about fellowship and hospitality.  Communion is about sharing and simplicity.  Communion is about the love we show to one another when we welcome and invite every single person to Christ’s table to participate.  Communion is a gift of God for the people of God.  And on this World Communion Sunday, let’s recognize that Communion is a gift to the entire Church.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

[1] 1 Corinthians 11:22, Common English Bible.
[2] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 305.
[3] Philippians 3:5-6.
[4] Galatians 3:28.
[5] Robin Meyers, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins, 126.